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Live music is back. Sort of. After four months of making do with pop stars streaming half-hearted semi-acoustic sets from their living rooms via Zoom, two and half thousand Geordie revellers assembled in an open space at Gosforth Park to watch local hero Sam Fender thrash an electric guitar, roar his lungs out, and deliver a loud, passionate performance of unreconstructed full-blooded heart-on-sleeve rock and roll.
“Newcastle, we’re making history tonight!” yelled Fender, and it was hard to blame him for being so excited, even if he was performing to a crowd all separated into small groups by crash barriers and policed by masked stewards in case they got too carried away and strayed out of their demarcated space. Welcome to socially distanced pandemic entertainment.
The ambitiously named Virgin Money Unity Arena is a pop-up venue created at Newcastle Racecourse by local promoters SSD. Virgin Money are the sponsors; unity is the aim. But calling it an arena is a bit of a stretch. It’s a field with a big stage at one end. The area is vast, 45,000 square metres, the equivalent of over six football pitches. In normal circumstances, it could host 40,000 people but capacity has been reduced to just 2,500 by small square platforms enclosed in railings, each spaced two metres apart and accommodating up to five people. Effectively, there are 500 social bubbles.
In a strange way, the set-up reminded me of the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1987 album A Momentary Lapse of Reason, on which hundreds of hospital beds were arranged on a beach in a monument to uniform sterility. Fans had to wear masks if they left their personal spots to form orderly one-way queues for alcohol and food, or visit designated Portaloos where brave hygiene teams were on hand to wipe down.
For a hardened gig goer, the sight was like something out of dystopian science fiction. As Mr Spock might have put it: “It’s live, Jim, but not as we know it.” But spirits in the crowd were high, attendees giddy with excitement at simply being allowed out of the house to gather en masse.
Sam Fender had the honour of inaugurating the arena. The 26-year-old singer-songwriter was born and raised in North Shields, eight miles from the venue. His debut album of passionate, anthemic, Springsteen-style rock, Hypersonic Missiles, went to number one in 2019. It is packed with sharply observed songs about growing up on the rough end of Northern life, and the mainly young crowd greeted each heartfelt number with delight.
In other circumstances you might describe Fender as rabble rousing, but first you need a rabble to rouse. The last time I saw Fender was at Brixton Academy in December last year, when his fans formed spontaneous mosh pits, hurtling their bodies into one another, throwing empty plastic pint glasses around, hugging, roaring, singing along at the top of their voices, in a frenzy of joyous rock and roll community.
This was… a little different. “I want to see some five-man mosh pits in your little pens!” Fender jokily urged as his band launched into the fierce, churning rocker Spice. “Normally, when we play this one people end up in A&E. But you’ll probably be safe tonight.”
The last major popular music live concert in Britain was Stereophonics at Cardiff Arena on 14 March, when the Welsh band were heavily criticized for playing for 5,000 fans on the eve of lockdown was announced. Live music has been decimated by the Covid-19, putting a billion pound industry at risk of complete collapse. SSD promoters are really the first in the world to come up with what looks like a viable pandemic set-up with close attention to every detail, including arrival and departure.
They are hosting 29 events over the next 25 days, with shows by Van Morrison, Supergrass, The Libertines and Alfie Boe, as long as no virus spike in Newcastle triggers a local lockdown. It is an expensive set-up for a relatively small audience, only made possible by generous sponsorship. No one seems to know how viable it would be in the long run but the point is really to give hope to an industry on its knees.
It was the luck of the Geordies that the opening night of the outdoor venue coincided with Britain’s heatwave finally fading up north, with a low, cold sea fret mist drifting in from the North Sea. But it was the spirit of the Geordies that they were determined to have a great time whatever the circumstances.
You could look at the arrangement of metal crash barriers as cattle pens or sheep runs, but from the perspective of many revellers it seemed to be more like having 500 separate VIP areas. Each group was drinking, dancing, singing with friends, and having an absolute ball. Fender and his tight, driven rock band played a fierce, uplifting set, and the crowd responded with a unity that defied isolation.
I’m not going to pretend it was the greatest gig I have ever been to in my life, or that I had some religious epiphany at the return of music to a public stage. But at a certain point in the evening, when darkness fell, the stage lights blazed, the sound boomed crisp and loud, the band roared and whoops from the crowd rose into the sky, it felt pretty much like watching a rock gig in any other festival field on a cold, wet night in August. And that in itself was strangely reassuring.